Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Monday, March 24, 2008

WAG THE DOG

Respond to question #3 on p. 166 of text before class on March 24. Journalism majors and PR majors should respond only to the parts of the question that apply specifically to them.

21 comments:

Howie Good said...

Before posting, please see my comments under MEDIA ETHICS. 01 "Wag the Dog." Just another little something to think about (I hope).

Anonymous said...

“Would it make a difference if it’s true?” To me, it makes a big difference, especially when it’s concerning the president to-be; someone to soon hold a great power. If the allegations are true, there’s NO WAY I’m going to be apart of some scandal to protect him. My job as a journalist is to seek truth and report it, not to be told a story and run with it. I would definitely need to know if the allegations were true even if I didn’t want to know because it would help me understand why I should protect the president and deceive the public. The truth would most definitely affect whether I was to take the job or not because my conscience would weigh heavily on my back. As a journalist and a human being with feelings, I wouldn’t be able to push to the side the fact that the president may be guilty of molesting this Firefly girl. Only a cold-hearted or money-hungry person would be able to take that job.
In order to verify the Firefly girl’s claims, I would need to know that she has been checked by a doctor for signs of forced intimacy. I would need statements from any witnesses, and of course question the Firefly girl (Did she cry for help?) The truth makes a difference to me because it changes my perspectives and my motives. If the president is innocent shouldn’t we prove it and if he’s guilty shouldn’t we prove it. Reporting is supposed to be about what is true, not about taking sides. I just can’t defend someone who is morally wrong.

lorraine said...

It makes a huge difference whether or not it's true because it would change what I decide to do as a public relations professional. Yes, it would make a difference if I found the allegations were true before dealing with the press. It would change my whole "game plan." I would absolutely need to know if it were true or not and it wouldn't be a question of whether or not I want to know because I would definitely want to know. Why? Like I said before, it changes my course of action. For starters, I would probably decide NOT to support and represent the next president. Why would I want to support and aid someone or something that I don't agree with or feel comfortable doing so? If it turned out to be false, then ok, I would have a mess to help clean up. But if the allegations were found to be true, I would need to know and want to know because I personally do not want to be a part of something like this. Aside from my personal conscience, the public deserves the right to know the truth. Afterall, this is the guy they could be voting as the next president!

Ryan said...

As a journalist it would be essential to find out if the allegations are true before reporting them. If you report the story without having FACTS there is a chance of ruining a public figures life unjustly. Additionally, by not seeking the truth, one would be continuing the trend of sensationalism in journalism. On the otherhand, by no means would I take part in a conspiracy to protect the president because if he is guilty of molesting the Firefly girl then it would need to be exposed. Who would want a child molestor representing and leading their country ?
Furthermore, I would try to interview the Firefly girl,the police, president, staff, or anyone that might have been around when this action may have occurred.

Jelena said...

First of all I need to say that after I watched the whole movie I was very much surprised of the enormous power that the media posses to manipulate people. They are powerful to manipulate the whole mass, including good informed federal agents, that was shown in the scene with Robert De Niro and the federal agent, where he “fooled” the agent even for minute which brought him right back into his limousine, instead in jail.
If I was in a situation where my president is involved in a sex scandal, and I am in the president press staff I will say that to me it will matter if the President is guilty or not. To me it will make a very big difference if the president really has cheated on his wife because if he did he will cheat on his people as well. But if he is not guilty I would not like too see my president unfairly accused. Therefore an investigation should be held, the President should be questioned as well as the girl involved in the case.
But in this movie the president’s staff decided instead of having an investigation, to support the President without asking any questions. They made up a story that totally distracted the public from the president’s sex scandal, and make the same a hero, not a cheater. I will newer do that, and even if I didn’t want to know I will need to know because of my country, my people, because they are the ones that will be leaden from this person in the next couple of years, and if he is immoral it will be bad for them.
Knowing the truth will make a big difference to my decision If I will stay on the President’s side or not. If the president is not guilty I will take his side and act as a good PR in order to help him explain itself to the public, but if he is I will never accept to work for him, or cover his crime because I will not think that he is ethically, morally and first of all not enough mature to lead our country.

Jimmy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jimmy said...

As a Journalist I cannot trust that the "firefly" girl or the president is telling the truth. The girl could have done this for attention, or she might have been approached by a competitor of the president in the next presidential race to sabotage him.

In order to find out who is telling the truth I would go about it the same way as Danielle. I would interview both parties, go to doctors, and look for witnesses. I would also check for records or documentation that both people were actually at the White House at the same time, and then I would have to make sure these records were not tampered with.

In today's media world this is very difficult to do. It is time consuming and possible very expensive. Time and money is something that papers today have little of, but that does not make an excuse for trying to tell the truth to the best of a journalist's ability.

ashley said...

I currently have changed my degree from broadcast reporting to public relations...I am finding it interesting as I need to rethink and curve my approach but either way the truth is important for me as the PR and I agree with Iorraine in that the truth does change the "game plan"...but I am still working it out as to where my place is in PR...

Jenn M said...

As a public relations person I would need to know whether the story was true or not in order to know how to go about my plan of action. If it is not true, I do everything to save the presidents reputation and get the public to believe that the girl's allegations are untrue. If the allegations are true, then I have to go about a strategy where the president needs to admit to his wrong doings and try to apologize to the girl and the public. Whether the information is true or not makes a huge difference as to how I would go about this. I would most certainly not want to try to cover up what the president did if the allegations were true because the truth would eventually come out and the results would be even worse than if he had come clean in the beginning.
I would most certainly not take the plan of action Brean took in the movie. To not care about the truth and then just manipulate the public to take the attention away from the president and the allegations is not dealing with the situation properly or ethically.

Rachel said...

If I was asked to handle a similar situation as a PR consultant, I would want to know if the allegations were true. I would want the accused to tell me everything about what happened so I could make the best decision as to how to handle the situation. However, regardless of whether or not the accusations were true, the public will believe whatever they want. That’s why Brean says the truth doesn’t matter. His concern is to distract them completely away from the situation. It wouldn’t matter to me whether or not the person was guilty of the alleged acts or not; I would take the job if I felt confidant I could help. Helping doesn’t mean lying, distracting, or doing something unethical. It could simply mean assisting in a resignation, such as Spitzer’s case. However, lets face it this movie went slightly too far when it started bringing in famous movie directors, special effects specialists, and probably other shady details just to “fix the situation.”

Kaitlyn said...

It would definitely make a difference to me if the information about the president were true or not. Molesting a child is a serious crime and I would not do anything to sway the public's opinions of this being false until I knew myself that it was in fact false. If I began to stand up for him and defend his name and then later found out that these offenses against him were true, I wouldn't forgive myself. If I chose to still work for him and protect his name, the family of this poor girl would always be on my mind. How could they see this man running to be in the most powerful position in the world after doing such a horrific thing to their little girl? For me, personally, I just wouldn't be able to deal with the weight of that. This is about right and wrong and to me, defending a man that can potentially be a criminal is just wrong.

Melissa Vitale said...

As a PR consultant it is my job as well as my duty to represent my client the best to my ability, without worring wether or not the story is true. However, when considering the president I do want to know the truth. That's a big accusation make on someone, and I do not feel that I can work for someone who has had such harsh alligations made against them. To me its morally wrong, and I'm a woman before anything else. Also, I would not want to take part in creating a story that has such a large effect on the public. Besides if the president is willing to go along with these stories, is this someone I would want in office?

Thomas said...

When first hearing about the information the President is being accused of, I would have to take a step back and evaluate the situation. If I stick around and defend his name by doing what I need to in order to pursuade those to not believe such allegations and then later find out they're true, I'd feel terrible. I'd feel ashamed that I have defended a man who could do something like this to a child. However, if I do not defend him and the allegations made are either dropped or proved to be false, I would also feel bad knowing I did nothing to help save his name or help him with his re-election. Being a PR major doesn't change my morals or beliefs and I don't believe that I would know exactly what I would do until knowing if the allegations were fact or fiction.

Kristen said...

As a journalism I do feel that the truth about the President would be the most important objective. I'd like to think that the press still upholds its function as a watchdog of the government, and as an educator to the masses to aid democracy. People need to know the truth about those they are electing, making the search for the truth about the president necessary. People need to be educated about their character in order to make educated decisions about government. It must be said though, that there is no real proof saying that either scenario between the president and the firefly girl was true. With only the young girl's word, it can't really be taken as straight fact, people do lie...even children. However, you also cannot take the information supplied by a PR agent straight either, for their main purpose is to uphold the image of the president, even if he no longer deserves that title. Basically, more research is involved no matter what. You need to find all of the details of the scene. I agree with what jimmy said earlier about who to contact: as many people as possible who may know information about the event. Talk to both sides and as many other sources as possible to find the most reliable information. However, in cases such as this, it will always be difficult too discern who is speaking the truth and who is spreading lies. As a journalist, I would take all of the information I had and present it all the in media, including the viewpoints and information from both sides. Let the people decide for themselves what information they believe and what they do not. Either way, informing the public is the most important.

coy pusey said...

I'm not a journalist nor PR major, but the truth determines ones career/future. As i heard this morning " As the lie reaches the end of his trip, the truth still putting his shoes on." Thats shows how much the truth or facts get leave behind when to some a story is more inmportant. The president career would be in the hands of the truth. Ethically i would love to know the really truth, because morally i would feel better with myself. However knowing the truth would definately matter if i took that job, because without the truth i could be responsible for any damage done. A medical report, and alibi would be needed in order for me to verify the gilds claim.

Jillian said...

To seek the truth is my job, as a journalist. It’s my responsibility to investigate the allegations, uncover the truth, and report my findings. I’m not in the business of “fixing” anything for anyone. I wouldn’t take a job with any company or organization that put my journalistic skills to use in the realm of advocacy, or required my loyalty to it and not to the public. I’m not a propagandist. Of course the truth matters -- if it doesn’t, what does?

I would need to interview Firefly Girl and her family. I would need to interview as many people on the tour as possible. I would need to see police reports and any witness statements. I would ask the family to let me view Firefly Girl’s medical records for documentation of physical violation, and verification of the date of the incident. I would have to see surveillance tapes, ticket stubs, receipts, White House visitor logs. I would want to interview the president, his staff, and Secret Service agents although that would be nearly impossible. I would interview Firefly Girl’s friends and neighbors as well, for any clues as to her credibility. It would be essential to uncover any hidden agendas, to corroborate stories, and verify the validity of my sources.

Daniel said...

The truth of the matter is, that if I were a member of the president's press staff, I would already be accustomed to having to cover the lies and half-truths of the president.
In answer to Brean's question I would state, you're right, It doesn't matter. If the allegations are true or not doesn't matter. It is a responsibility I have already agreed to. If I had an ethical dilemma to it, I would have either already quit or I wouldn't have taken the job.
In responding to the media, I would do the job required of me. I would vehemently deny all allegations to the best of my ability.
I would compare it to a defense lawyer. A defense lawyer will never ask his client if he is innocent or not, because if he were guilty he would be supporting perjury. However, it is his job to defend him to the best of his ability.
In this form of Public Relations, you need to be able to set the ethical side of your brain aside and just do what you're told.
As sad a state of affairs as this may be, reporters and editors are no better. They are able to justify things they do After the fact with basic "cover-all" excuses that barely fit the explanation they gave.


I apologize this was late.

Ian said...

As a public relations major, I find the actions of Mr. Fixit to be a typical stereotype of my field. I don't agree with deceiving the public to aid an adulterer in getting reelected, yet at the same time I am more concerned with how easy it was to deceive the public.

To the Journalism majors in my class: Please, when you graduate, please be the watchdogs you are supposed to be. If my job is going to wind up being lying to the public, at least make me have to work for it. Don't just hand me an easy cover up on a silver platter.

To the PR majors:
Try not to be professional liars. There's all sorts of PR you don't hear as much about. Use your skills of persuasion to help the weak, not the evil.

(Sorry about the lateness, I thought this was already posted.)

Lisa said...

Brean keeps the president's image clean. His job is to 'cover up' or in the least make it look better. His responsibility is not to the American public (though it should be because he is probably paid with the people's money) it is to his client, the president. He needs to maintain the image of the president regardless of what he has done. It's scary to think of it that way. If I was on the president's press staff - although I wouldn't be - I would probably get fired. I would find the obvious conscience problems with covering up the president's image without knowing if the allegations against him (especially molesting a kid) were true. It would not have made a difference if the allegations were true before dealing with the press because the main concern would be quality control.

If the allegations were true and I knew that, I should have been prepared when I took the job to deal with all of the President's nitty gritty skeleton in the closet type issues. I would have known that would be part of my job.

If I was the reporter, I would talk to officers, to the investigators, refer to the police report, talk to the parents, try to verify the president's alibi, talk to the people he stated he was with at the time, research the family, verify that they were at the white house on the day, find other people who were on tour with them at the White house that day that can verify their story, look at the register of visitors on that day and time to find them.

Sorry for being the latest.

Dana said...

As a journalist it would be hard to stick up for the President or be on his side; one sacrifice would have to be made though as a journalist going against the White House, I might not get the information I need from his side of the story. Although by trying to cover it up, it’s hard to believe that the president or his people are a valuable source of information. In order to verify the Firefly girl’s story I would pursue her end and look for alternative sources. Has she talked to anyone else about the story? Do details like time verify? Were the President and her truly alone at any moment long enough for an invasion of her person to take place? Are there doctor’s records or other privileged documents by the girl? Or as we found out in the Lewinsky case- is there an item of clothing with DNA? There are so many questions to ask when reporting a story with as much of an impact that this story could possibly have. As a journalist one can’t just take the White House or government officials information as fact; we have to remember that they are using PR just like a for profit business. They want everything to spin in their favor, even if the facts are not that favorable. A journalist still needs to seek truth and THEN report it... not just get a press release form and pass it on to the people as truth. We can’t survive as a democracy without a flow of ideas and without ideas being backed by truth it’s hard to determine which ideas will survive.


(I think I finally figured out my problem- I had to delete an old blogs information and close it down before I was allowed to post again- sorry for the lateness)

Ashley B. said...

I am not a journalism or PR major. But if I were in those shoes, I feel that it's very important to know the truth in any situation. Without all the facts you can't full assess the situation. You can take when you've been told and look at it from one point of view and get the job done, but that's not what it's about. You have to know all the fact, not just some. You have to be able to look at it from all sides and decide the best way to go at it. There's a difference between getting the job done and getting the job done right.

If I were personally in that situation, not only would I need to know all the facts but I would want to know them. I don't like feeling like I'm lost in the dark. It does matter to me whether it's true or not.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates


The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.


Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.